Forget the Tour de France. Some of the priciest two-wheeled masterpieces are found off the race course.
"It's not about the bike," according to the title of Lance Armstrong's autobiography. Except, perhaps, when the bike costs half a million dollars.
A few months after last year's Tour de France, the Trek Madone road bike Armstrong had ridden down the Champs d'Elysee in the final stage of the 21-day race was auctioned in a Sotheby's cancer benefit. Besides having been graced by the legs of the world's only seven-time Tour winner, the carbon fiber cycle was designed by artist Damien Hirst and adorned with hundreds of real, shimmering butterfly wings clear-coated to the frame.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called the work a "horrific barbarity." But a few wealthy bike lovers didn't seem to mind: The "Butterfly" Madone sold to an anonymous bidder for $500,000, crowning it as perhaps the most expensive bicycle in history.
The Tour de France has long been more than just a chance to admire one of the planet's most impressive duets of man and machine: It's also an opportunity to ogle those finely tuned and uncannily efficient machines themselves. After all, the world's top cycling teams use the Tour and other major races to pioneer subtle variations on frame styles, components and even jersey fabrics that shave seconds off riders' times--tricks that often make their way into the world of amateur cycling and production bikes.
"It's like F1 racing for cyclists," says Devin Walton, a member of the marketing team at bike component manufacturer Shimano. "Teams prototype technology at outrageous costs, and eventually it trickles down to consumers."
This year's Tour, for instance, is the first in which several entire teams are riding with Shimano's Di2 electronic shifting system, a battery-powered transmission that allows cyclists to shift from any position and automatically adjusts derailleurs to prevent rubbing. That system, which was only introduced in the 2007 Tour and is used by teams such as HTC Columbia and Garmin Transitions, is now available to the public and sells for around $5,000 a set.
For some teams, bikes in the Tour are already available to consumers at high, if not astronomical, price tags. Trek, which provides bikes to Team RadioShack and its star rider Armstrong, sells every model of bike on the mass market that Team RadioShack races. The Speed Concept time trial bike that Trek developed for Team RadioShack, for instance, can be had for $17,000 or less depending on the paint job and components.
But if consumers want the experience--usually reserved for the world's top professional riders--of having a bike designed and optimized for their individual body, it's better to call Kevin Saunders of KGS Bikes. Former engineer Saunders insists that customers fly to his headquarters in San Antonio for an elaborate three-hour fitting session that tests them in various riding positions. He then commissions the building of a single frame, typically from Beverly, Mass.-based Parlee Cycles. At the highest end, including custom paint jobs for every component of the bicycle, Saunders has sold bikes for as much as $32,000. "We don't aim to get close," says Saunders. "We aim to get perfect."
KGS's bikes will be just a few of the ultra-high-end machines on display at next June's "Best Bikes" cycling and lifestyle show in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Also in the line-up: A gold-painted, python leather and Swarovski-crystal adorned women's bike from Italian bicycle maker Montante, selling for close to $43,000, a folding bike built by Mercedes, and a carbon Beru Factor 001 bicycle priced at around $30,000.
British-based Beru builds components for F1 racing, and outfitted its Factor 001 bicycle with a touchscreen LCD display that serves up information from dozens of sensors monitoring the bike's components, its environment and even the rider's body. A cyclist can see, for instance, when he or she is putting more torque onto one crank than another and adjust his or her stroke to compensate.
Those tricks go far beyond professional racing restrictions, but could give riders new ways to tweak their training in real time. "We wanted to show people what could be done when there are no rulebooks," says Beru Managing Director John Bailey.
One ultra-pricey bike that won't be showing in Monaco: French manufacturer Aurumania's Crystal Edition Gold Bike. That track bike features a gold plated frame, wheels and spokes, along with 600 Swarovski crystals. At $101,000, it may be the most expensive publicly available bicycle in the world. And if anyone doubted its purpose as a status symbol: Aurumania also sells a gold-plated rack for the bike for more than $6,000.
The global recession may have put a dent into the market for the conspicuous consumption of cycling white elephants like these, says KGS's Saunders. He says his company since 2008 has focused on selling bikes at the $20,000 level with every practical advantage--not the $30,000 bikes equipped with pricey aesthetics. "People don't want to spend $10,000 on a paint job anymore," says Saunders.
But Paul Earle, the organizer of the Best Bikes show in Monte Carlo, argues that even in tough times, bicycles become a cheaper outlet for luxury than pricier alternatives like cars and motorcycles. "Bikes are relatively democratic in a way," he says. "Maybe you see a Ferrari go by, and you can't afford it. But you can still go spend $10,000 on a bike."
Besides, Earle says that the last year's economic recovery has put wealthy people back in the mood to spend big money on a healthy, green hobby.
"Everything is cyclical," he adds. Even--or, perhaps, especially--cycling.
(Andy Greenberg, Forbes.com)